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Sexism at the Bar

Posted by: Laurence Simons 29/09/15

Following the uproar surrounding the sexist (?) message sent to Charlotte Proudman on LinkedIn praising her “stunning” looks, gender bias at the Bar has once again become a hot topic.

Weighing in on the debate is Lord Sumption, one of Britain’s most senior judges, who is both one of Britain’s best paid and most celebrated barristers. His argument is that because of the “appalling” working conditions of the sector, and its characteristic long hours, female barristers are less eager to put up with the lifestyle and so are underrepresented.

Importantly, he is not against working towards a more even gender balance, but argues that it will take time – perhaps even up to 50 years – to materialise. He claims that male barristers could feel put off if women were granted increasing numbers of top positions, and that it could upset the delicate balance of legal recruitment. Diversity as a whole is an issue within the sector, but one that he believes is on a natural path of improvement. Despite this, only 25% of UK judges are women, and this proportion drops higher up the judicial system; women take only 21 of 106 high court positions.

The Supreme Court has released a statement defending Lord Sumption after his view caused a barrage of criticism on Twitter. Claims that he is misunderstanding the role women play and their daily lives at the Bar, plus accusations of damaging sexism are being batted about. However, the response from the Supreme Court argues that his comments “appear to have been misunderstood” and that “he believes that increasing diversity at all levels of the profession is important”. It went on to suggest that “the concern he expressed was against introducing any form of positive discrimination to the judicial appointments system without careful analysis.”

One thing is for sure, sexism and gender bias continue to be issues that are passionately debated at all levels of the legal sector.